When does expression of passion go too far into performance instead of worship?
One topic I get asked about a lot is the whole question of performance versus worship. Even this morning I received a email from a friend who posed the question “when does expression of passion go too far into performance instead of worship?”
It’s probably worth pointing out that my take on this has changed over the years. In my early days as a worship leader I was really big on the “faceless” worship leader and wished I could lead effectively without even being on stage. I would find certain big church styles of worship confusing and often would comment on them for being too much of a performance. My whole take on the ‘audience of one’ wasn’t wrong, but it perhaps excluded the other audience, the congregation.
So now, as someone who loves to sample chart music within our youth meetings, who embraces movement on stage, uses stage lights, runs creative loops and features MCs in worship, how do I balance this tension.
So here are six key things I feel we need to be aware of and think through.
1. Worship is a verb.
It is an action. It is something that we do. To truly worship God requires an action on our part. Sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, and sometimes emotionally but it always requires an action. Looking through the Psalms you’ll notice that for the writers simply saying or singing “I Love You, God” was not enough. There was always an internal and/or external expression of their infatuation with God.
Shout to God. Sing a new song. Dance before Him. Clap your hands. Bow down. Lift up your head. Tell of His might. Stand in awe. Meditate on His truth. Walk in His ways. Still your heart. Cast down your idols. Run to Him. Make a loud noise. Lift your hands. Clash the cymbals. Praise Him with trumpet. Seek His face. Tell the nations.
So our worship leading needs to convey and demonstrate an aspect of this all embracing ‘action filled’ worship.
Worship is both caught and taught.
2. Worship is a response
Our worship is very simply a response to God’s revelation in our lives. Everything begins and ends with God. If you read through the scriptures you will see countless acts of worship that started through a healing, miracle, or revelation of the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. And if we are honest we sometimes feel that they have to create an atmosphere, or set the stage for worship to take place. I think sometimes we put so much emphasis on creating an atmosphere that we forget that the only way real worship will happen is if the congregation catches a glimpse of God revealing Himself.
That being said we shouldn’t be afraid to skilfully use music to unlock hearts. Sometimes we get so concerned with not “hyping” things up that we lose sight that the Bible talks of worshipping or loving God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
What does it look like worship will all your heart, all your soul, mind and strength. I’m convinced that in order to achieve this we must involve every aspect of ourselves. Our thoughts, feelings, emotions, physical actions, passion and excitement.
Evoking emotion using music in not always a bad thing. Lets embrace using music skilfully as a tool to unlock hearts and allow God’s message of love and grace to penetrate deep.
3. We need to lift the ban on the term “performance”
Bernie Herms writes that
“The word performance itself, in the context of a musical worship service, has often assumed almost a taboo status and held an unnatural negativity-meaning human effort, entertainment, or the flesh in motion. It has been awkwardly pitted against all things of the Spirit. The secular vs. the sacred, the technically superior vs. the anointed, the studied vs. the spirit-led; the more time you’ve spent around church music, the more familiar these false dichotomies sound. Often, in our desire for a pure worship experience devoid of anything unspiritual, one blatantly obvious reality is obscured: a performance of some kind must take place.”
Every time we step foot on that stage, strike a chord or sing a note we are by definition performing.
There are two main definitions of performance
An act of staging or presenting a play, concert, or other form of entertainment
A person’s rendering of a dramatic role, song, or piece of music
Now whilst I agree the first definition can feel at odds with worship the other one is exactly part of what worship leaders do. We bring a rendering or translation of a song or piece of music.
It’s important to realise that how we think about something informs every action we take towards it. So, if we are indeed performing. Then for whom? Are making the audience our god or God our audience.
As we worship God, our ability to also lead a congregation in the same is transformed into a sacred performance. Your performance isn’t at odds with a pure worship; it is your worship.
Martin Smith in his book talks frankly and openly about balancing the worship leader and the showman and how to be effective in certain cultures he needed to embrace both.
So lets pop the myth that You must not perform otherwise it’s merely a concert. Recognise you perform every time you play and will elicit a response from those around. Embrace it and use it for His Glory, not Yours. As Paul Baloche comments the difference between worship & performance is simply the posture of the heart.
4. We need to be zealous for excellence
Let’s bring him & our church the very best. Surely our worship should be a wonder to the world by all artistic standards, set still set apart from mere performance. Whether professional or volunteer, your calling demands a sacrifice of time and passion. If your craft is but a mere shadow of what it could be, what does it say to the Giver of the gift?
Not all noise is a joyful noise. I’ve often thought that making a joyful noise should actually an act of worship reserved for the shower or in the car singing along to the radio
But from the from the stage a joyful noise can be a distraction. Anything that draws attention away from God is an exit to worship and can become an idol.
5. We need to recognise that the overall worship experience of the leader is the NOT same as the people in the congregation
Tim Hughes uses a great example of a host at a dinner party. Imagine if the host invited people to a meal and then had them sat watching him whilst he ate and told them how amazing the food was but didn’t serve them any.
Or consider the opposite that the host invites you for a meal and serves you and then sits back and watches you eat but doesn’t join in, simply saying he’ll eat later.
The worship leader should be engaging and worshipping with the Church but also the act of leading is part of their worship. Like the perfect host who eats with you and celebrates with you whilst serving and being mindful of all of their guests.
6. Church SHOULD be entertaining
To entertain is to hold the attention of someone. Yes our churches need to more than mere entertainment, but any person trying to get any other person’s attention must entertain. We should convey the wonder of a huge God who is intimately interested in the everyday mundane. Yes we need to guard against consumeristic worship which rates a service based on what I got out of it but at the same time we need to create an engaging and understandable service to those without the backdrop of church culture.
So lets keep checking the posture of our hearts.
Are we serving God and our Church, or our Ego?
Are people leaving saying “Wow that band were ace” or are they leaving saying “Wow, I met with God”?
Is our worship a response to all powerful and loving creator or purely an emotional response to well crafted music?
Let keep a healthy tension between performance and worship, but also recognise they don’t have to at odds with each other.
Kristian Ponsford is married to Sophie and has a little boy called Josiah. He is a worship leader, songwriter and Worship Central adviser with a passion for seeing the church engage in new, fresh and relevant ways. This is coupled with his love of using technology, loops, samples and DJ equipment in his worship leading. Go to Kristian’s website for more info.